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SC House to revise its road repair plan, hoping to win over counties

Author: Cassie Cope

Source: The State

February 2, 2015

The S.C. House will tweak its plan to repair the state’s crumbling roads, trying to win over counties by letting them decide whether they want to take over roughly half of the state’s roads.

That plan, to be introduced next week, does not include a controversial tax swap that Gov. Nikki Haley has proposed. Instead, the multi-part House plan includes increasing by up to $200 the state’s tax on vehicle sales.

Making the road takeover optional for counties could increase the House plan’s odds of passing.

“That will be a show of good faith on the state’s part back to local government,” said Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, a member of the House’s special road-funding committee. “We’re not trying to do anything to hurt them.”

But counties still might not want to take over responsibility for 18,000 miles of roads now maintained by the state.

“We’ve got more roads now than we can maintain,” said Richland County Council chairman Torrey Rush.

A better system?

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, plans to introduce the House roads bill, developed by a special committee that he chaired.

The time frame for Haley’s proposal is unclear.

Asked if the governor’s plan also would be introduced next week, Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams responded only, “There is a great deal of support for the governor’s plan among House Republicans, and you’ll see what that looks like in the days and weeks ahead.”

Simrill’s bill would cut the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax to 10.75 cents. It also would add a 6 percent tax to gas sales at the wholesale level, a tax hike that wholesalers would pass on to consumers.

The combined taxes would be capped at the equivalent of a 10-cent increase to the current gas tax, or 26.75 cents a gallon.

Proposing raising taxes is sure to draw the ire of some in the GOP-controlled House, where “no-new-taxes” has been a mantra for decades.

But another controversial component of the House plan — giving state roads to counties to maintain — is giving counties fits. As a result, Simrill plans to amend the bill, once it is sent to a House subcommittee, to make that takeover optional.

“I hope that counties participate because I think it actually makes our road system a better system and really a more accountable system to the taxpayer,” he said.

Simrill’s plan would allow counties to decide if they want to take control of about 18,000 miles of local roads during the next 4 1/2 years.

Counties could opt out. But counties that do not opt out eventually would get an increased share of the state’s gas-tax money — up to 6 cents a gallon from 2.66 cents now.

As a further sweetener, each county participating would get $1 million more in transportation money during the plan’s first year. The remaining money from higher gas taxes would be distributed based on an existing road-funding formula that takes into account a county’s size, population and miles of rural roads.

But many counties have concerns about the plan.

Calhoun County, for example, would have to bear up-front expenses for road maintenance, said Ott, adding that his home county would need to buy tractors, bush hogs and other equipment.

If it took part in the program, Calhoun County would nearly quadruple its miles of locally controlled roads to 413 miles in 2020 from 116 miles in 2013.

In return, Calhoun County would see its state-funded roads budget initially increased 2.5 times to more than $1.6 million in 2016 from the $625,300 that the county currently receives.

‘Absolutely detrimental’

Richland County already was responsible for 1,003 miles of roads in 2013, including some owned by the city of Columbia and other entities. To maintain those roads, the county received $3.4 million in state money this year.

If the county decided to take over control of additional roads now maintained by the state, it would receive 270 miles and a $1 million increase in its state funding — to more than $4.4 million — in the first year of the plan. In later years, the county would get an additional 540 miles of roads.

County Council chairman Rush said Richland, one of the state’s largest counties, would not be interested in that deal. “Adding additional roads to our maintenance responsibility ... would be absolutely detrimental to local government and Richland County.”

The Legislature’s failure to fully fund money that it has promised local governments since the Great Recession is responsible for some of the distrust between counties and the state.

In addition, there is concern the state would give roads to counties but added state money to county transportation committees, most appointed by legislative delegations, said Owen McBride, staff attorney for the Association of Counties.

McBride added his association has not taken a position on Haley’s roads plan.

Her plan would increase the state’s gas tax by 10 cents a gallon over three years and reduce the state’s income tax by 2 percentage points over a decade. Critics say that income-tax cut would slash the state’s general fund – including money that now goes to local governments – by $1.8 billion in 2025 and for each year after.

The county association initially opposed Simrill’s plan, but McBride said it will discuss its opt-out provision with county officials before taking a new stance.

Even with an added $1 million in state money up front, Richland’s Rush is not interested. “A million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but when it comes to the maintenance of roads, it’s really a drop in the bucket.”

 

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